“Sacred Land: Decoding Britain’s extraordinary past through its towns, villages and countryside”

by Martin Palmer, Piatkus, £16.99

Sacred Land is a handbook that provides techniques on how to read the signs of human activity in the landscape.  It also tells a fascinating story of the great events that have shaped Britain’s landscape over the past 7,000 years.  The author’s writing style is relaxed and yet authoritative. He identifies five main periods of British pre-history and history along with several great collapses of civilisation: 

  1. The Stone Age with ancestor worship – ending in 2,000 BC with the collapse of upland farming and the abandonment of long-barrows.
  2. The Bronze Age with stone circles – ending in 750 BC with the eruption of a volcano off Iceland.
  3. The Iron Age with Celtic and Roman traditions – ending in 410 AD because of damage to the environment and the impact of plague on the Roman Empire in Britain. 
  4. The Anglo-Saxon and Medieval period including monastic and Catholic Christianity until the Black Death in 1348 triggered the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation.
  5. Early 16thcentury onwards – Tudors, Stuarts, Georgian, Victorian and modern periods with Protestant individualism and the Enlightenment.  Britain was the first nation to have an Industrial Revolution followed by urbanisation. 

Looking ahead into the 21st century the author anticipates that our consumerist lifestyles and exploitation of the natural environment may soon bring about another catastrophic breakdown. 

Martin Palmer is an Anglican.  He and the late HRH Prince Philip, founded the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC): “…a secular body that helps the major religions of the world to develop their own environmental programmes, based on their own core teachings, beliefs and practices.”  Martin is quite a controversial figure; respected by many Christian environmentalists and yet treated with hostility by some theologians. 

Martin’s book succeeds in its brief of enabling “anybody, wherever they live, to discover that they walk on sacred land.”  Derbyshire features quite prominently in these five periods: 

  1. Ancestor worship – Nine Ladies Stone Circle near Stanton.
  2. Stone circles – Arbor Low near Buxton.
  3. Celtic and Roman traditions – Mam Tor Hill Fort near Castleton
  4. Monastic and Catholic Christianity – Darley Abbey near Derby
  5. Early 16thcentury onwards – Throwley Hall near Ilam


Chapter 5 was my favourite “How to read the story of a church” but I still found something new and significant on 69 out of 349 pages.  It’s the sort of book I will read again; for pleasure as much as for research purposes.  Overall, my verdict is “highly recommended” for anyone who wants an overview of Britain’s history as written into the human landscape.  

Arthur Champion (Revd)